The historic drought this year has pushed California's twice-delayed water bond to the top of the public agenda, water experts told lawmakers Thursday.
Now is the time for a ballot measure to fix the state's aging water system, nurture the ecosystem and help rural communities get healthy drinking water, the experts said. A new dam on the San Joaquin River must be part of the equation, most said.
A panel of state lawmakers listened to the testimony at a hearing at Fresno City College on Assembly Bill 1331, which would put a $6.5 billion bond on the November ballot. A vote on some version of a water bond bill is expected in the next several months.
Assembly Member Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, who wrote AB 1331, presided over the Fresno hearing, which was arranged by Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno. In addition to Perea, local-area panel members included Assembly Members Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, Adam Gray, D-Merced, and state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford.
Back in Sacramento just hours before the hearing, Republican Assembly Members Connie Conway of Tulare and Frank Bigelow of O'Neals announced a competing, $7.9 billion water bond bill that would raise proposed reservoir funding from $1.5 billion to $3 billion.
Mario Santoyo of the California Latino Water Coalition said he supports the additional money for reservoirs, but added the bond must be all things to everyone.
He said more money should go to reviving the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and rebuilding contaminated rural drinking water systems.
"We've got to fix everybody," Santoyo said. "We need to do this once and bring in all the problems."
Five years ago, the water bond was proposed at more than $11 billion. But the prolonged recession prompted lawmakers to remove it from the ballot in 2010 and 2012.
Now, the record dry winter has trumped the economy. Rendon last year trimmed a lot of pork out of the previous proposal and streamlined other parts of it. He is holding hearings all over the state on AB 1331, saying the record dry year adds urgency.
"If we don't approve this bond, critical projects in this state will go unfunded," he said.
The funding features $1.5 billion for protecting rivers, lakes and streams, $1.5 billion for climate-change preparedness and $1 billion for clean and safe drinking water.
Veronica Garibay, co-director of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, works with many San Joaquin Valley communities that have waited years for public money to fix their contaminated water systems.
She said the communities need help with technical expertise to get their projects "shovel ready" so state leaders will fund them.
"We need long-term solutions for these communities," Garibay told lawmakers.
Building the long-studied Temperance Flat Dam above Millerton Lake will help the entire region, said Gary Serrato, general manager of Fresno Irrigation District. He said Millerton Lake, at 500,000 acre-feet capacity, is half the size it should be.
Adding another 1.2 million acre-feet of water storage on the San Joaquin River would help groundwater banking projects by capturing excess Sierra runoff, which occurs once every few years. The excess water can be slowly released over time and allowed to sink into the groundwater banking areas.
"We can draw water back out of the ground in dry times like these, instead of losing it because we don't have enough storage," Serrato said.